Lower Kootenay Band Chief Jason Louie believes in the healing powers of Ainsworth Hot Springs, known to the Ktunaxa people as nupika wu’u’, meaning “spirit water.”
Growing up, Louie knew an elder who drank hot springs water from a pitcher daily and lived well into her 90s. She had an unusual vitality and remained mobile and active her entire life.
“That little story for me reaffirms the power of the hot springs water. Historically our people would go there for arthritis, or even after a battle if they were injured, they would go into the hot springs and take in the healing waters,” Louie told the Star while discussing his band’s purchase of the popular Kootenay Lake resort, announced Thursday.
“I’ve gone to the hot springs since my childhood and I’ve always loved it. At the band level and at the Ktunaxa nation level, it’s a culturally and spiritually significant site. We have a history with that site that dates back hundreds of years.”
A smooth transition
Louie said the April ownership transition will be uneventful, and all staff will retain their jobs.
“The leadership team went up last week to speak to the existing staff and reassure them their positions are secure. It would not make business sense to terminate staff who know what they’re doing, and a lot of them have been there for upwards of 20 years.”
He hopes the resort will provide job opportunities for people in his community, which is centred near Creston, but special preference won’t be given.
“We don’t want to assume you can have a position because you’re a member of Lower Kootenay Band. It will be based on merit.”
Current manager Karen LeMoel, the daughter of the present owners, will remain on staff as her replacement Rod Bateman takes over.
“It’s going to be a smooth transition and people don’t have to worry,” LeMoel said. “This is going to be a really good thing for Ainsworth.”
Visions of the future
Louie said the property is bigger than he initially realized. And though he wants to keep expansion minimal, he has some ideas about new attractions the band could introduce.
“One idea we had was teepee camping, giving customers a chance to stay in a teepee but adding modern luxuries like a bed. That would probably be seasonal.”
Louie also hypothesized they may be able to use their lake access to run a charter business, taking customers out to see the nearby cliff pictographs.
“There’s a whole history there that people are unaware of.”
He said it will be some time before visitors will notice any change.
“It’s all going to be gradual, but as time progresses we would want to give the hot springs an aboriginal brand. You might see more historical pictures in the rooms and buildings. There’s also talk of putting pictograph symbols up, maybe even in the caves.”
The resort has been family-owned since 1962. Current owners Norm and Joyce Mackie purchased the property from Joyce’s parents Sam and Belle Homen in 1979.
LeMoel said her parents are excited about retirement.
“My mom and dad have been here for 35 years and before that it was my grandparents. They’re 82 and I’ve been here for five years myself, helping them out. It’s a long time to be in one place — they’ve lived on site, right in the hotel, since it was built in 1987.”
The pair have bought a retirement home in Vernon.
LeMoel said her parents were particularly fond of giving local kids their first jobs, then keeping them on through the years.
“We would have them from high school, then they would come back in the summer for work when they were in university, and they always said one of the greatest things was having those kids come back and say it was the best place they’ve ever worked.”
She said the Lower Kootenay Band will appreciate all the infrastructure work completed over the years, including the construction of a sewage treatment plant and a retaining wall for the parking lot and upgrade to the caves lighting.
Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall was thrilled at news of the sale.
“I see this as a passing of the torch back to the First Nations of the region,” she said.
“I will continue to be a regular and I very much look forward not only to going there as a local resident but also bringing guests and tourists.”
Dianna Ducs of Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism said the Lower Kootenay Band will do a great job running the resort.
“The band has a really positive reputation in the area, and I think they’re going to ground us to the land more and bring a whole other perspective and appreciation.”
The band is involved in several other businesses, including St. Eugene Resort near Cranbrook.
The purchase price of the hot springs was not disclosed.